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Theologian builds zero energy home


Presbyterian Hunger Program hosts webinar to help inspire those striving toward home energy efficiency

September 10, 2021

The net zero home in Henryville, Indiana, owned by the Rev. Dr. Patricia Tull and her husband, the Rev. Don Summerfield. (Contributed photo)

Presented by the Presbyterian Hunger Program, the Rev. Dr. Patricia Tull, an environmental theologian and author of “Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis,” recently led more than 50 participants through an online presentation highlighting her and her family’s journey toward building a zero  energy home located in Henryville, Indiana.

Zero energy homes are regular grid-tied homes that are so energy efficient they produce as much renewable energy as they consume over the course of a year. More than “green homes” with just solar panels, a zero energy home combines advanced design and superior building systems with energy efficiency and on-site solar panels to produce a better home.

Tull, a former program director for Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light, has taught and led Earth care efforts among people of faith for the past 15 years. She and her spouse, the Rev. Don Summerfield, himself a Presbyterian pastor, built their Henryville home in 2018–2019, and she shared her experiences in the hourlong “Getting to Net Zero at Home” webinar. Tull said climate healthy homes are homes that not only benefit human and environmental health but are built or retrofitted to contribute much less energy pollution.

“There are a lot of reasons for wanting an energy efficient home,” says Tull. “Besides polluting less, it saves money, is more comfortable and it helps gain some independence from monopoly utilities. Speaking as a homeowner who happens to be an environmental advocate, if I can understand these concepts enough to act on them, anyone can.”

 Tull outlined 12 essential steps to achieve Net Zero Energy: building orientation, simple design, window orientation, thermal mass, tight building envelope, balanced insulation, balanced ventilation, heating/cooling equipment, domestic hot water, efficient appliances, efficient lighting and alternative energy.

Thanks to a bank of 26 solar panels on her carport, Tull’s home at times produces more energy than it uses, and she uses that energy to power her electric Chevy Bolt car. The excess energy produced by her home can also be sent back to the utility company – but that comes at a price.

“We can send excess power out to the grid, and we do,” said Tull. “But since we are on a rural electric co-op that doesn’t offer net metering, we are charged three times as much as we are credited for the power we produce. We send out as little as possible and store what we can in the battery, which also serves as a back-up power source much like a generator would.”

To build her new home, Tull enlisted designer and homebuilder Ted Clifton, owner of Zero Energy Home Plans based in Washington state, who designs homes and zero energy structures throughout the Northwest. Clifton takes a “whole house approach” to his designs, where each system is dependent upon the other to achieve a comfortable, more energy efficient home. With Tull’s residence, he discussed utilizing sun angles to maximize efficiency.

“Generally, we try to get a house facing south. But in this case, we turned it to a 45-degree angle so that essentially, we had two faces of the house — one facing southwest and one facing southeast,” said Clifton. “We built the carport with the solar panels facing due south and with the house we optimized everything for the actual sun angles. It’s unusual to do a 45-degree angle home but it’s not unheard of.”

Tull said there are things you can do to any home and described efforts toward creating an energy efficient home in her 100-year-old Jeffersonville, Indiana, residence, where she and her husband lived prior to building in Henryville. They included finding and plugging leaks in exterior walls, windows and doors; replacing the old water heater with a tankless heater; and adding insulation in the attic. There are also behavioral modifications, like keeping some room vents shut, using the microwave and small appliances more, rain barrels for gardening and a clothesline to replace the dryer. Some of the replacement items came with federal tax credits and utility rebates to the homeowner.

Sustainable living and care for Creation are tenets of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, which offers resources for congregations and communities that recognize we are called to respond to climate change. 

Scott O’Neill, Mission Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Home energy efficiency

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Kathryn Threadgill,  Assoc. Dir., Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Doug Tilton, Mission co-worker in South Africa, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Creative God, thank you for loving and caring Christian disciples who help us to know and love you. Show us how to teach and nurture others through the grace of Christ our Lord. Amen.

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